Tag Archives: faith

Why Are You Even a Christian?

Christians who ask lots of questions or wear their evolving beliefs on their sleeves often incur the umbrage of other Christians still on the “inside.” There is a surprising amount of resentment toward those who publicly wrestle with faith and doubt. When I was looking through Christian memes for a recent post, I came across this one which hit home in a big way:

why are you christian

This is a variation on “why are you even a Christian?,” a question that has been directed at me more than once and at countless Christian seekers in “real life” and online. This really is an absurd and loaded question, but after I explain how absurd it is I think I’ll go ahead and answer it anyway.

“Why are you even a Christian?” is a rather rude and thoughtless way of scolding someone for not meeting our personal expectations. The assumption at the heart of this question is that I am a “normal” or mainstream type of Christian, and you have drifted so far from where I am that you no longer qualify. Or maybe I just look at you and wonder how you could possibly think those thoughts and ask those questions and even want to identify as Christian. Maybe this isn’t the right religion for you if you really think that way, and maybe we don’t want you anyway! Ultimately the question reveals a deep lack of self-awareness and a small and undercooked notion of what it means to be a Christian. It’s an implicit and lazy appeal to the status quo of institutional American Christianity and a thinly veiled judgment on someone else’s character.

I can think of three honest responses to the question “why are you even a Christian?”:

1. I was raised Christian (like most of us). 

2. I attend church and read the Bible and do many of the same Christian things that other Christians do.

3. I find Jesus endlessly compelling and choose to follow the path he taught and embodied. I am a Christian because I have faith (that is, vulnerable trust) in Jesus.

But maybe I should try and answer the real question, “how dare you defy my expectations?”:

The expectations and judgments of others cannot be the basis for something as personal and vital as how I interpret and experience faith in Jesus. If my journey and my thoughts are troubling to you, it might be that there are dimensions and aspects of life and faith that you have not considered. Or maybe we just have a genuine disagreement about what it means to be a Christian. Either way, we are both subjective voyagers, neither of us has the credentials or the authority to police the borders of true Christianity. We need each other’s questions and doubts just as much as we need kindness and encouragement.

I used to be where you are, and I was also puzzled and alarmed when people asked inappropriate questions. In fact, reaching back, I start to recall my old reasons for clinging to Christianity: obligation, fear, expedience, inheritance, expectation… And all of that is a recipe for anxiety and unhappiness. If I had a chance to talk with my young self I might ask him, “why are YOU even a Christian?” Turns out it’s an excellent question, if you ask the right person.


Is Biblicism Gnostic?

Modern Christians know that there were “false” versions of the faith from its earliest days. In reality, there were multiple Christian streams and traditions before an orthodoxy began to emerge. Some of the earliest believers designated as “heretics” were groups of Gnostic Christians. Unfortunately, most of what we know of these groups has to be reconstructed from what their orthodox critics wrote about them, so we can’t be certain that their beliefs have been properly represented. Gnostics apparently believed in a dual reality, a sharp separation between the world of matter and the world of spirit, which certain people could upwardly traverse if they possessed the proper knowledge (Greek gnosis). Special sorts of humans (not just anyone) could learn secret truths and by knowing them transcend their fleshly bodies.

Christian apologists today are well rehearsed in criticism of Gnosticism. It is not focused on sin or atonement, it diverges from the apostolic tradition, and it attempts to reconfigure the story and message of Jesus according to its own agenda. When Gnostic Gospel texts were discovered and published in the twentieth century, conservative Christianity quickly mobilized to “debunk” and dismiss them. But when I step back and look at modern conservative Christianity, particularly the fundamentalist and biblicist streams, I see a faith that frankly shares a great deal in common with that old Gnosticism.

I recently read an intensely biblicist article on Facebook. It celebrated the Bible as “revealing special knowledge” not available anywhere else, without which one cannot hope to “see heaven” when they die. God “sent us” this book, and if we want to know the saving truth, all we have to do is read and believe it. Now, as a Christian myself and a student of scripture, I fully recognize the unique value of the Bible to those who wish to follow Jesus. But the biblicist approach seems to me to be deeply Gnostic, for a few obvious reasons: 1) It assumes a dualistic universe; we live in doomed flesh and the point of religion and salvation is to transcend our fate and attain a higher plane of spiritual existence. 2) Information that was once secret has been made known in the Bible and is the key to unlocking salvation and transcendence. And 3) only certain (elect) people are even eligible to receive this special knowledge; many will never know or believe because that’s just how the universe is set up.

Again, I do not deny that the Bible is especially valuable for the way it puts the church in touch with the earliest traditions about Jesus and the ancient context from which he emerged. But celebrating a book as the key which unlocks enlightenment and heaven seems like a huge mistake – and a new sort of Christian Gnosticism. Instead of appreciating the scriptures as a witness to Jesus whom we may choose to follow on a path of thoughtful spirituality, the Bible itself becomes the magical gnosis which affords its true believers salvation and escape.

What is the antidote to gnostic faith? Isn’t all religion “gnostic” to some degree? Doesn’t every faith offer “special knowledge” that gets the believer on the inside? The answer is often yes, though it really boils down to the way we choose to understand and embrace our faith. Here are a few suggestions for keeping our Christian faith from going gnostic:

  • Remember that “the way” of Jesus is a lifelong journey of humility, learning, and repentance, not a magic transaction that places us on a superior plane of existence.
  • Remember that our tradition has traversed many borders of culture, language, race, and class. We are not an exclusive or privileged group.
  • Remember that many in our tribe can profess belief and understanding without ever demonstrating empathy or mercy, while many outside of our tribe have discovered the path of peace and forgiveness without our same knowledge or resources. Belief does not automatically translate into enlightenment.
  • Remember that the Bible is a partner and helper, a story told by our forebearers, and not a magic fount of secret knowledge.

There is no shortcut to wisdom or character, no fastpass to peace and salvation. There is only a life to be lived in either relationship and discovery, or alienation and fear. Knowledge is only a first step.


Errant Notions Part Six: This Time It’s Personal

Last in a series of posts examining common arguments for ‘biblical inerrancy,’ the assertion that the Bible is without error in everything it affirms.

This is the final argument we’re going to consider in our series on inerrancy, and it is quite unlike the previous ones. Up to this point, each question we’ve considered had a technical aspect to it: Were the original autographs free of error? Was canonization an indication of infallibility? Does the Bible establish its own inerrancy? Did Jesus teach inerrancy? And what did the church fathers and reformers believe about the nature and authority of scripture? Each of these can be researched and assessed to varying degrees of satisfaction. Our sixth argument, unlike these others, is less technical and far more rhetorical. And, for me, it has become unexpectedly personal.  Continue reading


Three Ideas That Saved My Faith

I’ve never been much of a skeptic or a doubter. At the same time, I’ve never found science or scholarship to be threatening. I find reality more interesting than conceit, and trust that whatever seems reasonably true and good is something I should embrace. God and Jesus have always seemed as true to me as history and photosynthesis.

After seminary and some personal crises of faith – mostly involving the Bible and politics – my faith in the traditional formulations of Evangelical religion in which I was reared began to crumble. My esteem for Jesus wasn’t on the chopping block, but almost every other aspect of my Christian identity was. At one point, I would have been very happy to drop the label “Christian” and just be a Jesus fan. The tenets and strictures that were being torn down on a daily basis far outnumbered new and constructive ideas. I was almost done.

But in the last five years or so, I’ve experienced the surprising excitement of reading, listening, praying, conversing, and thinking my way into some new arenas of Christian hope and identity. They are new to me, anyway. There are many ideas that have invigorated and sustained me as a Christian in this new season of my life, but here are three that changed everything and rescued my dimming faith.

1. The Bible as a Diverse Library

This is the main topic of this blog, so I won’t oversell the idea here. But the reason I’m so intent on calling my fellow Christians to reexamine their approach to the Bible is that my own spiritual progress remained stalled and stifled until my view of scripture had been radically transformed.

The Bible is a collection of diverse, disparate texts, often in explicit or implied dialog, often in disagreement, all unaware that they are destined to become part of a collection known as “the Bible.” These are ancient works of persuasive human creativity which we consider to be inspired and sacred, but which bear the markings of the human personalities which crafted them. To read the Bible as a unified, monolithic whole is to miss the trees for the forest. The “perfect” Christian Bible that teaches a simple, straightforward, linear theological plan is a fiction. This error has kept us from a) learning to discern and appreciate unique individual voices in scripture, b) comparing and contrasting those voices, discovering harmonies and confronting tensions, and c) isolating and embracing the uniquely authoritative voice of Jesus.

2. The Anti-sacrificial (Nonviolent) Reading of the Bible

Traditional readings of the Bible which deny or obscure its diversity and polyvocality almost inevitably confound the message and work of Jesus with elements of ancient sacrificial religion which pervade the canon. In this popular view, God really does require blood sacrifice and punishment to keep Himself satisfied, and Jesus is the ultimate human sacrifice, the one that finally got (some of) us off the hook. This reading, accepted by millions of Protestant Christians as the only responsible and correct one, does great injustice to the character and reputation of God and dilutes and complicates the gospel of Jesus Christ. It sees violence as woven into the very fabric of the universe, and divine violence as the inevitable climax of human history.

Through the work of writers, teachers, and luminaries like Brian Zahnd, Brad Jersak, N.T. Wright, James Allison, Walter Brueggemann, Michael Hardin and René Girard (to name just a few), I have encountered various strains of nonviolent and anti-sacrificial theology. These are careful and faithful readings of scripture that understand Jesus as a corrective and liberating revelation of God’s true nature. Girard (for example) identifies in the Bible two unique voices: the mythical voice of the “vengeful victim” (eg. Abel) and the fresh voice of a “forgiving victim” (eg. Joseph) who interrupts the cycle of human retribution. This reading sees Jesus as the ultimate forgiving victim, who exposed the violent sins of religion and empire on the cross, and announced divine forgiveness upon his peaceful resurrection. In a nutshell, it takes “mercy not sacrifice” very seriously.

Such an interpretive scheme doesn’t pretend that the whole Bible is inherently nonviolent or anti-sacrificial, as if to impose modern liberal sensibilities back onto the text (an easy but lazy critique). Instead, it finds prophetic threads of anti-sacrifice and forgiving victimhood inherent to the texts and identifies these as the divine voice by which all others are challenged. To my heart and mind, this reading illuminates and animates the texts of the Bible in shocking, beautiful and unbearably profound ways. It accounts for the true nature of the Bible and does not impose a false uniformity. It exposes the true depths of our sin and the staggering extent of divine forgiveness. It gives voice to victims and reveals God as a loving co-sufferer rather than a doer of harm. It illuminates the way to true salvation and peace.

3. Hopeful, Open-ended Eschatology

As a child I would lie awake at night, terrified that the rapture would happen at any moment and my life would be over. Of course, as a Christian, I understood that my “real” life would only just begin at that moment, but I didn’t care. The prospect of leaving behind the world of friends and movies and cartoons and girls and going to the boring eternal church service in the sky was horrifying. Likewise, for many conservative Christian adults, the “end times” are a terrifying and violent inevitability, a doomsday brought about by the rampant sin of unbelieving people. But for Christians who claim to believe in this imminent reality, shouldn’t the revelation of God and the culmination of His purposes be a thing of beauty and delight? Something is very wrong.

Embracing a diverse, human Bible and exploring its inherent witness to a nonviolent theology also opens the possibility for a more holistic and hopeful eschatology. If the Bible is not a strict, flat, literal blueprint for an immediate and bleak future; if God is not a bloodthirsty punisher; if salvation encompasses all of creation and not just civilized, self-interested humans; if religious war and divine violence are not the inevitable climax of history; then there is room for hope. There is as much room for human progress, climate rescue, and “peace in our time” as there is for eternal salvation, new creation, and the peaceable kingdom of God. There is real hope, not that we might survive Armageddon, but that we might reject it and choose life instead.


3 Defining Aspects of My Evolving Faith

Just a quick little post today but with some big ideas. Like many Christians of roughly my age and upbringing, I have experienced in recent years what I’m tempted to call a “faith journey.” That’s a timid way of saying that my Christian identity has evolved into something radically different from what it was, and continues to change. A lot. Every day. Taking stock of these changes and discoveries, I realize that there are at least three major aspects of Christian faith that have changed profoundly for me. They are Bible, Jesus, and Faith itself. Here’s what I mean:

1. I acknowledge that our Bible consists of many human voices in conversation, often argument, and that genuine interaction with scripture will inevitably involve discerning those voices and (here’s the dangerous part) picking sides. If we learn to navigate the tribal, violent, sacrificial, exploitative, divisive rhetoric of the inspired religious minds that wrote the texts, we can encounter Jesus in his historical habitat and discover his divine beauty, all the more loud and clear for its proper context. This is how I believe our Bible can and does reveal truth about God, as often in spite of what it says as by it.

2. Jesus’ teaching is amplified by his death and resurrection, not diminished or irrelevant in light of them. The glorification/deification of Jesus represents a validation and veneration of his prophetic message, not the turning of a corner whereafter his earthly sayings are no longer as relevant or appropriate. Being God’s son, in ancient parlance, meant (at least) that one was like God. If Jesus is God’s Son, it means (at least) that God is like Jesus: meek, mild, driven by love and empathy, calling people to abundant life, exposing the emptiness and futility of human systems of sin and domination. To imagine that Jesus has abandoned his humble human vocation in order to become the Emperor of Heaven is to willingly lose sight of his own stated values and of the Kingdom of peacemakers he claimed to establish. Jesus’ divinity and supremacy are demonstrated at Easter, not in some future hostile takeover. To await his appearance (or “second coming”) is to anticipate the advent of peace and light, not doomsday.

3. True “faith” consists in trust and hope, not mere belief. In fact, faith-as-trust anticipates and acknowledges doubt. If salvation or transcendence depend on conformity of doctrinal belief, then most all of us are doomed – even (or especially) those who are consumed by theological correctness. “Faith” and “belief” in the language of the Bible refer to a living and vulnerable trust in the person Jesus, a counter-cultural hope that his Way is the way of life. We can hold a wide variety of technical beliefs about religion and the nature of everything, but faith in Jesus means that when both world and religion begin to look wrong and hopeless, we can find meaning and identity in Jesus, the one who was faithful to his own Way to the point of death, and of whom (we believe) God has made a victorious and peaceful example.

This is brief and incomplete by design, it is meant to provoke thought and invite discussion.